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A Celebration Of Milwaukee's Home Basement Bars

For the kickoff of our new season of Bubbler Talk, I thought I would tackle a question from our listener Erin Christie.

“Can you do an appreciation segment on the prevalence of basement bars in Milwaukee?”

Ah, the basement bar. Raised in the Milwaukee area, I remember them well.

Some were more luxurious. But many of the basements were lightly finished — equipped with an old couch, a refrigerator and a pool table. And, some came with a carved-out nook that served as a bar.

Erin says when she was growing up, her family had one of those in her home.

“We actually had a pretty sweet basement in our house in Green Bay that had a built-in dry bar. It, surprisingly, had wood floors and wood paneling on the walls and ceiling and a gas fireplace,” she describes.

Erin says her parents did some entertaining around the bar, having friends over for drinks. But mostly, her family used the basement as a rec room, or TV room, for watching Packer games.

When she and her husband bought their house in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood a few years ago, it too came equipped with a built-in basement bar.

Credit Erin Christie
Erin's basement bar is completely finished with a living room-style lounge to compliment the bar area.

She invited me to check it out. I walked into something that looked much different from many of the basement bars, or rec rooms, of the past.

Erin’s basement is totally finished and has a 1960s/'70s lounge feel to it — wood paneling, low lighting, a living room complete with coffee table and couches from the era. The music of 1960s cool jazz artist Stan Getz plays in the background.

Then, you turn the corner and there’s the bar. The nook-like space is beautiful and features cultural icons such as a large Wisconsin map, tall German beer steins and a mounted muskie overhead. 

Credit Erin Christie
Erin Christie is proud of the basement bar she restored when she purchased her home in the Sherman Park neighborhood in 2016. Her cats Esther (center) and Eunice (left photobombing) also like to belly up to the bar.

Erin says the basement was “raw” at the time of the purchase and she and her husband spent 18 months restoring it.

“I tore out the ceiling and painted the floor joists. I sanded and re-polyed the walls. I put in a new floor, cut out a hole for the fridge, rebuilt the bar shelves, refinished the bar top, new baseboards, covered up a pipe,” she explains.  

Credit Erin Christie
Erin's house in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood is one of several that were constructed with a built-in basement bar.

The house was built in 1934 and the bar in the basement was constructed in the 1940s, according to Erin. She says she went to such lengths to restore the basement and bar to preserve the home’s integrity.

“It’s a fun place to be, it’s part of the house, it’s part of the history of the house, it’s part of the history of Milwaukee. I think it would be a shame to just let this disappear,” Erin says.

Some of her neighbors in the Sherman Park neighborhood also have homes that came with built-in basement bars.

Milwaukee historian John Gurda says such homes are prevalent throughout the area, from Bay View to Bayside. And, he says homes with basement bars aren’t just a Milwaukee thing; they can be found across the country. 

Many were built after World War II, when people felt they could enjoy life again.

Credit Courtesy of Tom Marek
This basement bar was completed in late 1950s on the southwest side of Milwaukee by Ted Marek, who with his wife Emily, had built in the mid-1950s.

“We were all going through the same thing. It was that 15 years of the Depression and war when things were pretty much on ice, and then you celebrate when things are finally back to normal,” explains Gurda.

Gurda predicts basement bars could see a resurgence after the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, and more people feel like entertaining friends. 

Our listener, Erin Christie, says she hasn’t had anybody over for drinks at her bar since last March when COVID-19 hit, but hopes that’ll change later this year.

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Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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